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ARROWS OF THE QUEEN
By Mercedes Lackey
DAW BOOKS, INC.Copyright © 1987 Mercedes R. Lackey
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA gentle breeze rustled the leaves of the tree, but the young girl seated beneath it did not seem to notice. An adolescent of thirteen or thereabouts, she was, by her plain costume, a member of one of the solemn and straight-laced Hold families that lived in this Borderland of Valdemar-come there to settle a bare two generations ago. She was dressed (as any young Holdgirl would be) in plain brown breeches and a long, sleeved tunic. Her unruly brown curls had been cut short in an unsuccessful attempt to tame them to conform to Hold standards. She would have presented a strange sight to anyone familiar with Holderfolk; for while she sat and carded the undyed wool she had earlier cleaned, she was reading. Few Hold girls could read, and none did so for pleasure. That was a privilege normally reserved, by longstanding tradition, for the men and boys of the Holdings. A female's place was not to be learned; a girl reading-even if she was doing a womanly task at the same time-was as out of place as a scarlet jay among crows.
If anyone could have seen her thoughts at that moment, they would have known her to be even more of a misfit than her reading implied.
Vanyel was a dim shape in the darkness beside her; there was no moon, and only the dim light of the stars penetrated the boughs of the hemlock bushes they hid beneath. She only knew he was there by the faint sound of his breathing, though they lay so closely together that had she moved her hand a fraction of an inch, she'd have touched him. Training and discipline held her quiet, though under other circumstances she'd have been shivering so hard her teeth would have rattled. The starlight reflected on the snow beneath them was enough to see by-enough to see the deadly danger to Valdemar that moved below them.
Beneath their ledge, in the narrow pass between Dellcrag and Mount Thurlos, the army of the Dark Servants was passing. They were nearly as silent as the two who watched them; only a creak of snow, the occasional crack of a broken branch, or the faint jingling of armor or harness betrayed them. She marveled at the discipline their silent passage revealed; marveled, and feared. How could the tiny outpost of the Border Guard that lay to the south of them ever hope to make a stand against these warriors who were also magicians? Bad enough that they were outnumbered a hundred to one-these were no simple barbarians coming against the forces of Valdemar this time, who could be defeated by their own refusal to acknowledge any one of their own as overall leader. No, these fighters bowed to an iron-willed leader the equal of any in Valdemar, and their ranks held only the trained and seasoned.
She started as Vanyel's hand lightly touched the back of her neck, and came out of her half-trance. He tugged slightly at her sleeve; she backed carefully out of the thicket, obedient to his signal.
"Now what?" she whispered, when they were safely around the ledge with the bulk of a stone outcropping between them and the Dark Servants.
"One of us has to alert the King, while the other holds them off at the other end of the pass-"
"With what army?" she asked, fear making her voice sharp with sarcasm.
"You forget, little sister-I need no army-" the sudden flare of light from Vanyel's outstretched hand illuminated his ironic smile, and berthed his white uniform in an eerie blue wash for one moment. She shuddered; his saturnine features had always looked faintly sinister to her, and in the blue light his face had looked demonic. Vanyel held a morbid fascination for her-dangerous, the man was; not like his gentle lifemate, Bard Stefen. Possibly the last-and some said the best-of the Heraldmages. The Servants of Darkness had destroyed the others, one by one. Only Vanyel had been strong enough to withstand their united powers. She who had little magic in her soul could almost feel the strength of his even when he wasn't exerting it.
"Between us, my Companion and I are a match for any thousand of their witch-masters," he continued arrogantly. "Besides-at the far end of the pass there isn't room for more than three to walk side by side. We can hold them there easily. And I want Stefen well out of this; Yfandes couldn't carry us double, but you're light enough that Evalie could easily manage both of you."
She bowed her head, yielding to his reasoning. "I can't like it-"
"I know, little sister-but you have precious little magic, while Evalie does have speed. The sooner you go, the sooner you'll have help here for me."
"Vanyel-" she touched his gloved hand with one fur mitten. "Be-be safe-" She suddenly feared more for him than for herself. He had looked so fey when the King had placed this mission in their hands-like a man who has seen his own death.
"As safe as may be, little sister. I swear to you, I will risk nothing I am not forced to."
A heartbeat later she was firmly in the saddle, Evalie galloping beneath her like a blizzard wind in horseshape. Behind her she could feel Bard Stefen clinging to her waist, and was conscious of a moment of pity for him-to him, Evalie was strange, he could not move with her, only cling awkwardly; while she felt almost as one with the Companion, touched with a magic only another Herald could share.
Their speed was reckless; breakneck. Skeletal treelimbs reached hungrily for them, trying to seize them as they passed and pull them from Evalie's back. Always the Companion avoided them, writhing away from the clawlike branches like a ferret.
"The Dark Servants-" Stefen shouted in her ear "-they must know someone's gone for help. They're animating the trees against us!"
She realized, as Evalie escaped yet another trap set for them, that Stefen was right-the trees were indeed moving with a will of their own, and not just random waving in the wind. They reached out, hungrily, angrily; she felt the hot breath of dark magic on the back of her neck, like the noisome breath of a carrion-eater. Evalie's eyes were wide with more than fear; she knew the Companion felt the dark power, too.
She urged Evalie on; the Companion responded with new speed, sweat breaking out on her neck and flanks to freeze almost immediately. The trees seemed to thrash with anger and frustration as they eluded the last of them and broke out on the bank above the road.
The road to the capital lay straight and open before them now, and Evalie leaped over a fallen forest giant to gain the surface of it with a neigh of triumph....
Talia blinked, emerging abruptly from the spell her book had laid on her. She had been lost in the daydream her tale had conjured for her, but the dream was now lost beyond recall. Someone was calling her name in the distance. She looked up quickly, with a toss of her head that threw her unmanageable hair out of her eyes. Near the door of the family house she could make out the angular figure of Keldar Firstwife, dark-clad and rigid, like a stiff fire iron propped against the building. Keldar's fists were on her hips; her stern carriage suggested that she was waiting Talia's response with very little patience.
Talia sighed regretfully, put up her wool and the wire brushes, and closed the worn little clothbound volume, laying aside the rocks she'd used to hold down the pages as she'd worked. Though she'd carefully marked the place, she knew that even without the precious scrap of ribbon she used to mark it she'd have no trouble finding it again. Keldar couldn't have picked a worse time; Herald Vanyel was alone, surrounded by the Servants of Darkness, and no one knew his peril but his Companion and Bard Stefen. Knowing Keldar, it would be hours before she could return to the tale-perhaps not even until tomorrow. Keldar was adept at finding ways to keep Talia from even the little reading she was grudgingly allowed.
Nevertheless, Keldar was Firstwife; her voice ruled the Steading, to be obeyed in all things, or suffer punishment for disobedience. Talia responded to the summons as dutifully as she could. She put the little book carefully away in the covered basket that held carded and uncarded wool and her spindle. The peddler who had given it to her last week had assured her many times that it was worthless to him, but it was still precious to her as one of the three books she owned and (more importantly) the only one she'd never read before. For an hour this afternoon she'd been transported to the outside world of Heralds and Companions, of high adventure and magic. Returning to the ordinary world of chores and Keldar's sour face was a distinct letdown. She schooled her expression with care, hoping none of her discontent showed, and trudged dully up the path that led to the Steading, carrying her basket in one hand.
But she had the sinking feeling as she watched the Firstwife's hardening expression that her best efforts were not enough to mislead Keldar.
Keldar noted the signs of rebellion Talia displayed despite her obvious effort to hide them. The signs were plain enough for anyone with the Firstwife's experience in dealing with littles; the slightly dragging feet, the sullen eyes. Her mouth tightened imperceptibly. Thirteen years old, and still fighting the yoke the gods had decreed for her shoulders! Well, that would change-and soon. Soon enough there would be no more time for foolish tales and wasted time.
"Stop scowling, child!" Keldar snapped, her thin lips taut with scorn, "You're not being summoned for a beating!"
Not that she hadn't warranted a beating to correct her attitude in the past. Those beatings had done precious little good, and had drawn the feeble protests of her Husband's Mother but it was the will of the gods that children obey, and if it took beating to drive them into obedience, then one would beat them with as heavy a hand as required, and pray that this time the lesson was learned.
It was possible that she, Keldar, had not possessed a hand heavy enough. Well, if that were indeed the case, that situation would be corrected soon as well.
She watched the child trudge unwillingly up the path, her feet kicking up little puffs of dust. Keldar was well aware that her attitude where Talia was concerned was of a harshness that bordered on the unfair. Still, the child drove her out of all patience. Who would ever have imagined that so placid and bovine a creature as Bessa could have produced a little scrap of mischief like this? The child was like a wild thing sometimes, intractable, and untamable-how could Bessa have dared to birth such a misfit? And who would have thought that she'd have had the poor taste to die of the birthing and leave the rearing of her little to the rest of the Wives?
Talia was so unlike her birth-mother that Keldar was perforce reminded of the stories of changelings. And the child had been born on Midsummer's Eve, a time long noted for arcane connections-she as little resembled the strong, tall, blond man who was her father as her plump, fair, deceased mother-
But no. That was superstition, and superstition had no place in the lives of Holderkin. It was only that she had double the usual share of stubbornness. Even the most stubborn of saplings could be bent. Or broken.
And if Keldar lacked the necessary tools to accomplish the breaking and bending, there were others among the Holderkin who suffered no such lack.
"Get along, child!" she added, when Talia didn't respond immediately, "Or do you think I need hurry your steps with a switch?"
"Yes ma'am. I mean, no ma'am!" Talia replied in as neutral a voice as she could manage. She tried to smooth her expression into one more pleasing to her elder, even as she smoothed the front of her tunic with a sweaty, nervous palm.
What am I being summoned for? she wondered apprehensively. In her experience summonings had rarely meant anything good.
"Well, go in, go in! Don't keep me standing here in the doorway all afternoon!" Keldar's cold face gave no clue as to what was in store. Everything about Keldar, from her tightly wrapped and braided hair to the exact set of her apron, gave an impression of one in total control. She was everything a Firstwife should be-and frequently pointed this out. Talia was always intimidated by her presence, and always felt she looked hoydenish and disheveled, no matter how carefully she'd prepared herself for confrontations.
In her haste to edge past the authoritative figure of the Firstwife in the doorway, Talia stumbled a little on the lintel. Keldar made a derogatory noise in the back of her throat, and Talia felt herself flush. Somehow there was that about Keldar that never failed to put her at her faultiest and clumsiest. She regathered what little composure she had and slipped inside and into the hall. The windowless entryway was very dark; she would have paused to let her eyes adjust except for the forbidding presence of Keldar hard on her heels. She felt her way down the worn, wooden floor hoping not to trip again. Then, as she entered the commonroom and she could see again in the light that came from its three windows, her mouth suddenly dried with fear; for all of her Father's Wives were waiting there, assembled around the roughhewn wooden table that served them all at meals. And all of them were staring at her. Eight pairs of blue and brown eyes held her transfixed like a bird surrounded by hungry cats. Eight flat, expressionless faces had turned to point in her direction.
She thought at once of all her failings of the last month or so, from her failure to remember her kitchen duties yesterday to the disaster with the little she was supposed to have been watching who'd gotten into the goat pen. There were half a hundred things they might call her to account for, but none of them were bad enough to call for an assemblage of all the Wives; at least, she didn't think they were!
Unless-she started guiltily at the thought-unless they'd somehow found out she'd been sneaking into Father's library to read when there was a full moon-light enough to read without a betraying candle. Father's books were mostly religious, but she'd found an old history or two that proved to be almost as good as her tales, and the temptation had been too much to resist. If they'd found that out-
It might mean a beating every day for a week and a month of "exile"-being locked in a closet at night, and isolated by day, with no one allowed to speak to her or acknowledge her presence in any way, except Keldar, who would assign her chores. That had happened twice already this year. Talia began to tremble. She wasn't sure she could bear a third time.
Excerpted from ARROWS OF THE QUEEN by Mercedes Lackey Copyright © 1987 by Mercedes R. Lackey
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.